To read Junot Díaz can be to learn about yourself and your views of his characters as much as you do about the stories themselves. The frequent employ of second-person points-of-view carves out a strange space between direct address, confession, and a one-off handbook.
He writes: “You, Yunior, have a girlfriend named Alma, who has a long tender horse neck and a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans.” It sort of runs through you—How do I feel about this? Would I ever say such a thing? And what is this handbook teaching me?
On the auspicious September 11th Díaz released his second story collection, This is How You Lose Her. Nine stories reside in the pages of this follow-up to his Pulitzer-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. My hometown bookstore had an advertisement for that novel which said, “Written by Oscar Wao” with the author’s name written underneath.
Díaz himself is often identified and implicated in his fiction. He was born in the Dominican Republic and grew up in New Jersey. He was a nerd and a weightlifter. His narrator Yunior has been described as alter-ego as much as invention. Díaz does not hide the intersections with his own life, and this collection is heavy on cheating and broken relationships, the weakness and stupidity of male choices. Junot Díaz makes it clear: things are not how they should be. Sometimes, we view problems from a distance and, other times, we are the problem.
I had two weeks left in my MFA program and I’d been charged with picking up Junot Díaz from the airport and shuttling him around Portland. Planes emptied and I nervously scanned the crowd. I’d only seen him in person once and seen is all I could claim from nosebleed seats at an opera hall reading.
The first thing I did when I picked up Díaz was drive the wrong direction on the freeway. We discussed how close the airport was to the city center, just as I was getting off an exit and making a u-turn. Díaz reclined in my passenger seat lamenting back problems from the weightlifting and from moving pool tables (which he wrote about in his first story collection, Drown).
In the opera house in 2008 Díaz described himself as a slow writer and he read a portion of this collection’s opening story “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” (which also appeared in The New Yorker). Pool tables or weights aside, it cannot be easy lifting a Pulitzer from your back. Where can you go from there? Jeffrey Eugenides released his follow-up to Middlesex nine years later. This was only a five-year break since Wao.
Yet Díaz has such an intense following (he’s one of few authors who can nearly cause a riot at a reading) that this book feels like the pushed-back release of a highly anticipated film (or comic book, as some of his characters might anticipate).
Though in Oscar Wao and Drown, adolescence and its discontents were ubiquitous, this collection has maturity in content, if not in ethical behavior. Concerns of growing old and decaying bodies are laid bare in the final story “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” in a way I don’t remember seeing before. “Your back is agony and the numbness in your arms is starting to become steady. In the shower, the only place in the apartment you can be alone, you whisper to yourself: Hell, Netley. We’re in hell.”
Yunior is now a writing professor and an author. “Dear Yunior, for your next book,” an ex-girlfriend writes him. He lives in Boston/Cambridge and misses New York. As I drove the author around, he expressed similar sentiments. “I’m too old to live in a city I don’t like,” said Díaz, who travels weekly from New York to teach at MIT.
Sure, there are many connections in his own life, amongst those Díaz’s own brother contracting cancer, though he lived whereas Yunior’s brother Rafa doesn’t in “The Pura Principle.” But over-emphasizing personal connections to anyone’s fiction does a disservice, making fiction just a dressed-up memoir, a half-breed.
These stories are marked by being polylingual. It’s not just English, though language is wielded like a battleaxe and a scalpel in the same sentence. It’s not just Spanish, which normalizes and defamiliarizes in unaccented usage (“Sounds like you’re going to be bien cómoda, Marisol says.”) These stories speak nerd and academic, hypermasculinity, New Jersey Dominican. They tap into many different vectors and valences while also giving a feeling of unity and consistency, painted with the same colors or at least the same brushes. And since no fluency is marked by clutter, these stories feel incredibly uncluttered. Paragraphs are not wasted. Images never simply fill space. Reading these stories is watching a great pitcher on the mound; he has all the curveballs, fastballs, and sliders in the world, though only one can be thrown at a time.
Some may have been waiting for the next Junot Díaz novel. He even analogized telling a publisher/agent that his next book was a story collection to a sexist Dominican family having a daughter rather than a son—time to focus on the next one. Some may have anticipated Díaz leaving the constellation of characters and locations he’s built. Not yet., though he’s indicated that he will. It may come with time, and who knows how long. Meanwhile, these stories are worth savoring, studying, and loving.
What I’m left with from this collection, and from Díaz himself, may be the same thing: his ability to be both conversational and formal, eloquent and plainspoken, to say brilliant things Trojan-horsed in slang and self-deprecation, has a way of making you put your guard completely down and be effected in surprising and powerful ways.